Coronavirus cannot stop Britain’s war in Yemen

Despite claiming to help tackle the coronavirus pandemic, Britain’s military and arms industry continue to facilitate bombing one of the world’s poorest countries, which is most at risk from Covid-19.

22 April 2020

Yemenis fear their country will not withstand coronavirus (Photo: Rod Waddington / Flickr / CC)

The Royal Air Force (RAF) and Britain’s largest arms company, BAE Systems, are continuing to support Saudi Arabia’s assault on Yemen, despite calls from the United Nations for a ceasefire over fears of “untold human suffering”, Declassified UK has found.

UN officials are warning that Covid-19 could “crush” the remaining 50% of Yemen’s healthcare system that functions after five years of aerial bombardment, which has killed more than 100,000 people and seen medical staff repeatedly targeted.

Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and experts were alarmed when the country’s first case of Covid-19 was detected earlier this month. Yemeni human rights group Mwatana was told by a despondent resident in the capital of Sana’a: “If coronavirus arrives in Yemen, we should just dig our graves and wait quietly for death.”

Despite these concerns, the Yemen Data Project says that last week the Saudi-led coalition launched 106 air strikes. The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect has described such attacks as “indiscriminate bombing of civilians”.

Declassified UK has found that while the recent sorties were underway, British arms industry giant BAE Systems flew a cargo plane (tail number G-JMCM) from its Typhoon fighter jet factory at Warton Aerodrome, England, to the RAF’s Akrotiri air base in Cyprus on 15 April 2020 where it refuelled and stayed overnight.

The cargo plane then proceeded to Ta’if, near Mecca in Saudi Arabia, the following day. BAE staff at King Fahad Air Base in Ta’if service a fleet of Typhoon fighter jets used by the Saudi air force to bomb Yemen. 

A few hours after landing in Ta’if, the BAE freighter returned along the same route to Warton, arriving on 17 April. A plane spotter logged the flight on an internet message board and a fellow enthusiast remarked: “The weekly Saudi aircraft spares supply flight (what else?) continues unabated by any Covid-19 pandemic that grips the world.”

When asked by Declassified UK about the purpose of last week’s flight from Britain to Ta’if, a BAE spokesperson would only say: “We provide defence equipment, training and support under government to government agreements between the UK and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.‎” 

Flight data appears to confirm that the Warton-Akrotiri-Ta’if flight is a weekly event. The model of aircraft used by BAE, a Boeing 737-300 freighter, can hold eight large cargo containers on its main deck. 

Declassified UK has also found that in April alone BAE has advertised at least five vacancies for expatriates to help support the Saudi air force. BAE employs about 6,500 people across Saudi Arabia, of which approximately 30% are expatriates. 

The job adverts include one for an instructor to train Saudi Arabian military pilots how to fly Hawk jets at King Faisal air base in Tabuk, close to Jordan. Pilots must learn to fly the Hawk before they can master the more advanced Typhoon jet, which is active over Yemen.

The other four vacancies are in Ta’if where Saudi Arabia’s Typhoon fleet currently requires a new “simulator instructor pilot”, an “armament technician supervisor”, a “logistics control engineer” and a “capability insertion engineer”.

When asked about such job adverts, a BAE spokesperson told Declassified UK: “We comply with all relevant export control laws and regulations in the countries in which we operate. Our activities are subject to UK Government approval and oversight.”

Flying the flag

The British military and the UK’s largest arms company work closely together at all levels of Saudi operations. BAE is assisted in Saudi Arabia by about 100 serving UK military personnel, mostly drawn from the RAF, under a scheme known as the Ministry of Defence Saudi Armed Forces Projects (MODSAP) which earns the UK government £60-million per year from the Saudi regime. 

Without Britain’s technical expertise, the Saudi air force would be out of service in less than a fortnight, according to a former BAE employee who spoke to Channel 4 Dispatches. In addition to Ta’if and Tabuk, other MODSAP sites include the Saudi capital of Riyadh, Khamis Mushayt near the border with Yemen, Jubail and Dhahran on the Gulf coast, and Jeddah on the Red Sea coast. 

The MOD told Declassified UK it would not specify how many of its personnel are at each site “for reasons of operational security” and did not answer our questions about whether it was appropriate for the RAF to continue its support for Saudi Arabia’s air force during a pandemic.

In March 2019, Britain’s defence minister Mark Lancaster told Parliament that RAF personnel “provided routine engineering support” for Saudi military planes “including aircraft engaged in military operations in Yemen”.

He added that they have also “provided generic training support” to Saudi pilots, but the RAF did not monitor how their students went on to use the skills they learned.

The MOD claims its role does not amount to “direct support” for Saudi sorties in Yemen because RAF personnel “do not prepare” Saudi aircraft for operations, either by “loading” weapons or planning attacks.

However, the government has admitted that UK personnel store and issue weapons for use by the Saudi air force, load weapons for its training missions and participate in training exercises with the Saudi air force. Three RAF personnel are also embedded in the Saudi Air Operations Centre.

Hours after the BAE cargo plane landed in Ta’if on 16 April 2020, Sir John Lorimer, a British Army general who deals with the Middle East, had a “warm, productive discussion” with the chief of Saudi Arabia’s armed forces. Sir John described his Saudi counterpart as a “friend” and criticised Yemen’s Houthi rebels on Twitter for not engaging in a ceasefire during the pandemic.

The UK also has a close relationship with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), another key member of the coalition that is bombing Yemen. Last week, an RAF transport plane flew from Cyprus to Al Minhad air field in Dubai — UAE’s biggest city — where the RAF has a permanent presence. The UAE has also hired British mercenaries to assist its Presidential Guard unit which has fought in Yemen.

‘Cruel irony’

While helping to bomb Yemen, both the RAF and BAE are assisting Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) to tackle Covid-19 in the UK. The RAF has described Covid-19 as a “national crisis” and made helicopters available to help NHS Trusts in Scotland reach Covid-19 patients in remote parts of the country. This week, an RAF plane collected surgical gowns from Turkey.

BAE is supplying protective visors and ventilators to the NHS, claiming it wants to “help in any way” to stop Covid-19. Some BAE staff, who make parts for the Typhoon fighter jet, have been diverted towards printing 3D face shields for healthcare workers in the UK.

British-Yemeni lawyer Rehab Jaffer told Declassified UK that BAE’s actions were a “cruel irony”. She said: “In the midst of a pandemic, they make breathing apparatus for one nation, whilst sending military aid to another, for use against a country that is suffering the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”

“It is clear now, more than ever, that BAE Systems are not concerned with ‘defensive’ security, but rather with fuelling warfare.”

Although Britain’s support for Saudi Arabia’s air force is particularly controversial during the Covid-19 pandemic, it is a long-standing arrangement that has survived several scandals already.

MODSAP was created to facilitate the Al-Yamamah arms deal between Britain and Saudi Arabia signed by Margaret Thatcher in 1985, which was the biggest ever arms export deal concluded by the UK. 

The Al-Yamamah deal was marred by allegations of bribery that Britain’s Serious Fraud Office attempted to investigate until the then Prime Minister Tony Blair intervened to halt it after threats from the Saudi regime that Riyadh would make it easier for terrorists to carry out atrocities on British soil if it went ahead.  

British military documents show MODSAP is regarded as a “key priority for UK Defence overseas engagement and constitutes a major component of the UK’s Middle East Strategy” and there are considerable efforts to make sure staff are well looked after.

BAE built compounds for its expatriate workers at Salwa Garden Village (left) in Riyadh and at Sara (right) near Dhahran. (Credit: Google Earth)

Under the MODSAP scheme, British military personnel stationed in Saudi Arabia receive healthcare to NHS standards from BAE and are issued with BUPA Gold private medical insurance. In 2014, BAE employed six British and three South African doctors to provide healthcare to MODSAP personnel, their spouses and children at facilities in Riyadh, Dhahran, Ta’if and Tabuk.

BAE employs so many expatriate staff in Saudi Arabia that it has built vast compounds to accommodate them and their MOD counterparts. The Salwa Garden Village in Riyadh has 73 units available to MOD personnel, including a “super executive villa”, and BAE’s Sara compound near Dhahran has 952 residential units with 25 set aside for the UK’s MOD. Facilities include schools, swimming pools, a bowling alley, squash and tennis courts.

This degree of investment has seen Saudi Arabia become BAE’s third largest market after the US and UK. BAE has sold £15-billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since the conflict with Yemen started in 2015, according to Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). The company’s annual report published in April 2020 noted: “Saudi Arabia has a strong commitment to defence and security spending driven by regional security instability”.

In 2019, CAAT successfully obtained a Court of Appeal ruling preventing UK ministers from granting new export licences for weapons that might be used in the bombing of Yemen. The British government has appealed to the Supreme Court.

Special forces

In addition to the MODSAP scheme, UK military personnel also serve in Saudi Arabia’s National Guard (SANG), an elite unit known as the “white army”, which protects the ruling House of Saud and has been active in Yemen. 

Under an arrangement known as SANGCOM, the UK military has earned £2-billion since 2010 to “modernise” the guard’s communication equipment, Declassified UK has previously revealed.

Around 74 MOD personnel were stationed in Saudi Arabia working on the SANGCOM project in 2019. Their work has included “advice to the National Guard at all levels of command… for the full spectrum of military operations on the southern Yemeni border”.

Britain’s Special Boat Service (SBS) is also believed to be fighting on the ground in Yemen, directing Saudi air strikes and working alongside child soldiers. Five SBS commandos were reportedly injured in these operations in 2019.

In 2018, the SBS deployed to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti from where they boarded ships and escorted them through the Gulf of Aden in case of attacks from Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

The MOD refuses to comment on UK special forces and the extent of their role in Yemen remains highly classified. However, the Special Boat Service Association, a charity which helps veterans, said in its 2018 annual report that a “high proportion of injuries” sustained by its members on unspecified missions “are classed as life changing”.

The injuries ranged from “damaged limbs, disfigurements, amputations and PTSD, one severely injured member who will be on a ventilator for the rest of his life and two members with acute brain injuries, again requiring lifetime care and support”. It is likely that at least some of these injuries were sustained during SBS operations in Yemen.